Daniel Coyle on the “Sweet Spot” in Guitar Practice

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Enjoy!

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

Daniel Coyle

Mountains of research now show how to learn music effectively. We need our practice to be hard, but not too hard.

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle names a key ingredient to the learning “sweet spot”. The key is “uncomfortable”.

In our practice, we need to constantly search for that zone just beyond our current abilities.

If we push too far, we become disillusioned and frustrated. If we don’t push far enough, we become bored and frustrated.

So how do we find this “sweet spot”? And how do we know when we’re there?

To answer these questions, we need to find clarity in our current task. Whatever we’re practicing in the moment, we need to know exactly what we’re trying to do.

For each step forward in speed, cleanliness, or mere comprehension, we can break the work down into ever-smaller steps.

And for these small steps, we need to know the moves involved (the choreography). We need to know how one note connects to the next. We need to know what success looks like.

Within these small challenges, we seek out the pace and work that takes all our focus and awareness. We can do it, but it’s not easy. We can do it only if we give our full attention.

Riding this wave – “I can do it, but it’s hard” – is the sweet spot. Sometimes it feels leagues from the final finished piece. Sometimes the steps forward are so small we question the whole affair.

But as long as we’re balancing on the edge of our abilities, we’re getting better.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.

I am a 61 year old physician, reconnecting with the classical guitar after a hiatus of nearly 40 years. After a couple of weeks [in the program], I’m now producing a much clearer, yet somehow more mellow and beautiful sound. It was really good to feel it happening in my hand, and that it felt more comfortable and somehow “right”, compared to the way I had played before (“curved picking”). The fog started to lift and I found that I was remembering more, and it felt great (also a bit of a relief!), giving me confidence to keep going. Thank you for making your course available - your love of music and the guitar shines through the teaching. I am very happy I found and registered with CGS.

-Brian Davey

Those videos on practicing the piece were just awesome, Allen! I've always thought that learning songs might be something completely different than practicing exercises, but the way you teach it makes it much easier than I thought. I'm positive that joining the Woodshed has been the best investment I've ever done for learning the classical guitar. Thank you so much for these lessons.

-Ulysses Alexandre Alves

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